RIGHT ANGLE – Is Modi scared of dissenters-turned-disobedient?
Any standard text book of political science will tell you that “Dissent” is an activity or critical thinking that makes one think and question accepted notions of authority, truth, and meaning. In a democracy, it is inherently linked to freedom of expression or thought. This right to dissent, thus, becomes a democratic necessity to determine the legitimacy of the actions and institutions of a given state as well as the customs and practices of a given society. As famous political philosopher Plato had said, dissent is important for “promoting either the capacity of individuals to examine their lives in relation to others or a collective capacity for public reasoning.”
What this implies is that in a democracy the dissenters must be respected and protected. But that, if the Khan Market gang in India, the likes of Rahul Gandhi and his acolytes, and some foreign media and NGOs are to be believed, is not happening in India ever since Narendra Modi became the country’s Prime Minister in 2014. Their allegations are that critics of the Prime Minister and his overall Hindutva outlook are abused in the social media without an intervention of the government, that dissidents are being jailed with sedition charges, that Sikh farmers are being branded secessionists just for opposing the farm laws, that Muslims are being termed rioters for opposing the citizenship-law, and that noted intellectuals are losing jobs for their criticism of the government and so on.
But are these allegations, on the basis of which perceptions have been built, valid? I am not going into the veracity of such allegations, though many of them are simply preposterous. What I would like to deal in this column are the limits of dissidence that is a democratic right beyond which one enters a different but problematic territory that belongs to what is called “disobedience”.
For instance, if you are against some laws, you have got every right to protest peacefully against them as you think those are wrong. But if this protest leads to violation of these laws, then it becomes defiance or disobedience and you should be prepared for its consequences as envisaged by the legal system of the country. You can peacefully assemble with others and express your dissent. That is perfectly legitimate. But when your mass demonstrations obstruct the free passage of traffic, the state has a legitimate public concern in regulating such demonstrations because it has been given the duty to regulate traffic. Similarly, if your dissent through your of freedom of speech become an incitement to riots, than that is not sanctioned by laws and you should be punished by the state.
The point is that if you have a right of dissent, the government has a duty to ensure that your right does not adversely affect the rights of others. The government or state has to insure rule of law and order and ensure the unity and integrity of the country. In other words, whatever the source of your dissent, it is certain that limits must be imposed. These limits must not unduly hamper free expression, but must protect the rights of the non-dissenters, that is, the majority.
In a democratic country such as ours, the courts are entrusted with the job of striking the balance between the government’s right to protect its citizens and itself, and the individual’s right to dissent. Neither right is absolute. Both rights have their source in the Constitution.
Unfortunately, it has become a fashion now by some to suggest that people do have a positive obligation to disobey what they think to be unjust laws. And they ask others to join them in disobeying or violating such laws, though ironically in many a case they themselves do not participate in that act. They only incite. Ant they succeed because persons unjustly aggrieved by rules and laws, especially in our society today, are generally able to provoke the sympathy of others and thereby enlist aid to their cause.
However, such disobedience is dangerous on many counts. One, disobedience tends to encourage a general disrespect for law and order, particularly among the young. Two, it suggests that each citizen has a right to determine for himself or herself which laws should be obeyed and which not. Three, disobedience escalates or incites mob rule and results in violence. Four, if everyone has his or her own ideas on which laws are just and which are not, then there can never be any law that applies to all, the uniformity of which is the most important yardstick of any civil society or country. Basically, it leads to jungle- raj where few with might become right.
And this is precisely what we are seeing in India today. Dissents inside our legislatures earlier were classy arguments by our opposition leaders, voting against the government and in some cases walk-out. But today, in the name of dissent, they gherao the presiding officers and assemble in the wells, forcing the adjournments. Outside, as we saw during the anti-CAA protests in the past and see now the so-called farmers agitation, public roads are blocked for months. And the worst we saw few days back when a BJP MLA was bitten mercilessly publicly by the agitators in Punjab. Delhi-riots last year were carefully orchestrated to get adverse international publicity, coinciding as it did with the visit of the then US President Donald Trump.
All these are precise acts of disobedience, not dissent.
It needs to be highlighted that those who cause or incite disobedience in a democratic country are invariably a tiny minority. They call themselves to be democratic, but they think that overwhelming majority not sharing their views must “agree” with them. The government must listen to what they say. The bureaucrats and other officials must act as per their dictates. And the courts must give verdicts as per their petitions, irrespective of their merits. In other words, they have got the divine right to rule over all of us, the overwhelming majority.
Their total number in India (a country of 1.3 billion) must not be exceeding few thousands, but they happen to be intellectual elites of the country who for more than 70 years have been totally dominating the media, educational institutes and cultural organisations. They were systematically aided and promoted (in jobs and perks), by every Indian government till 2014. They are still a formidable force even under the Modi-rule; they reject everything that is new; they are against any change in the system that will lead to greater good in a rapidly changing world; they are the biggest threats to those who have dissenting views. And yet, they call themselves to be progressives, liberals and seculars.
Most of these elites’ view of India is the India that dominates in our text books, media and political discourse. They are the ones who invariably think only Hindus can be communal in India because Hinduism or Sanatan Dharma is the most exploitive religion in the world. For them, a person espousing a Hindu cause cannot have dissent because for them dissent is fine as long as it is expressed by a “good” dissenter (to be determined by them) but a “bad dissenter” is not worth fighting for (if a reporter or columnist writing against Modi or Hindu rituals and practices is in trouble, then it is murder of dissent; but if someone supporting Modi and against regressive practices under Islam or Christianity has a problem, then it is wise to remain silent).
In what is to be considered an example of Stockholm- syndrome, the habitual dissenters- turned disobedience inciters have always considered Hindus and their values systems to be inferior to those of Islam and Christianity. In fact, I agree hundred percent with the comment of a face-book friend the other day that “India is the only major country based on a great civilisation where one is systematically taught to hate your heritage and glorify the invaders who came to destroy it. And this absurdity is called secularism.” Secularism in India must not be “equal” respect for all religions, they argue.
These “great minds” are kind enough to preach that they believe in the importance of negotiations and compromise on difficult issues by the contending parties. But for them, if one of the contending parties happens to be the Modi government, then there is no question of any compromise and the government must surrender. Therefore, on the issue of the ongoing agitation by a select group of farmers on the new farm laws passed by the Parliament, negotiations can only be over how and when these will be repealed, not on the merits or otherwise of these laws.
True dissent is protesting and asking the authorities to see merits in their dissent. If authorities do not listen, then go to the court and abide by its verdicts. Or try to change the government through democratic means of election. Till then do not break the laws. But when you are deliberately breaking laws in order to force a change in the system, it is a clear case of disobedience. Therefore, you should be prepared to face the consequences sanctioned by the laws of the country. In fact, they should consider themselves very lucky that the Modi-government is extremely kind to them by not invoking these laws.
Or is Modi scared of them?